research > city+politics+culture

I have a PhD in Cultural Policy and Management from City, University of London. My doctoral dissertation, titled “Oil that Harvests Culture”: State, Oil and Culture in Petrosocialism (Venezuela, 2007-2013) develops a story about the oil state and the way it deploys its policies to instrumentalise culture and urban space, looking in particular at the Venezuelan Petrostate. The thesis explored the spatial and cultural dimensions of oil, and how oil-based forms of understanding culture and urban space are privileged by the national oil industry.

My research interests are the the intersections between the politics of space and the politics of culture; modernity, architecture and urban space and the interfaces between space, bureaucratic power and culture in a Petrosate.

I am co-founder and council member of the Venezuela Research Network (, which brings together scholars from a wide range of institutions, disciplines, and political perspectives who are engaged in research on Venezuela.

I am also a member of the Petrocultures Research Cluster at the University of Alberta which supports research on the social and cultural implications of oil and energy on individuals, communities, and societies around the world today.

Photo: One of the 23 adverts of PDVSA La Estancia’s campaign “We transform oil into a renewable resource for you”

We Transform Oil into a Renewable Resource for You Doctoral Research, 2012-2016

“Oil that Harvests Culture”: State, Oil and Culture in Petrosocialism (Venezuela, 2007-2013)

The thesis develops a story about Venezuela as an oil state and the way it deploys its policies to instrumentalise culture and urban space. It examines the way the Petrostate is imagined in speeches, how it manifests physically in space and how it is discursively constructed in adverts. By engaging with the work of Henri Lefebvre, Bob Jessop and George Yúdice this thesis sets out to challenge the disciplinary compartmentalisation of the analysis of the material and cultural effects of oil to demonstrate that within the extractive logic of the Petrostate and the oil industry, territory, oil, and culture become indivisible. Mainly, it explores how the material and immaterial flows of oil traverse space, bureaucratic power, and culture. This thesis is particularly concerned with investigating the discursive and institutional mechanisms that enabled the Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA to expand its dominant space over Caracas to effectively reframe the city as an urban oil field.

The thesis develops through four interconnected arguments. It examines the representations of space produced by Petrosocialism through the creation of the new policy instruments of the Socialist State Space. This process opened an institutional and legal breach that enabled PDVSA, the state-owned oil company, to enact the Oil Social District as a parallel State Space. Consequently, PDVSA’s definition of its corporate headquarters as a centre of oil extraction conceptualises Caracas as an oil field absorbed by the Oil Social District to enable PDVSA La Estancia (the cultural and social arm of PDVSA) to override municipal authority and embark on an ambitious program of public art restoration and urban regeneration. PDVSA La Estancia’s actions in the city are justified by its use of farming language that discursively melds oil and culture in a symbiotic and cyclical relationship to define their work as ‘oil that harvests culture’. Moreover, the advertising campaign ‘we transform oil into a renewable resource for you’ is used by PDVSA La Estancia to render oil and culture as equivalent, conceiving culture as ‘renewable oil’ as if culture could accumulate in the subsoil waiting to be extracted, exploited and processed like a mineral resource. An original contribution of this thesis is to build on Yúdice’s expediency of culture as a resource to propose the notion of culture-as-mineral-deposit, in which culture is inextricable from land, akin to ‘renewable oil’ and tightly controlled by the Petrostate.

Photo: Flower intervention on spikes, Los Palos Grandes, Caracas. Penelope Plaza, 2011.

Research Project for the Department of Design, Architecture and Visual Arts, Universidad Simón Bolívar, Venezuela, 2009-2011.

El espacio del miedo en la ciudad moderna. Estrategias de evasión, segregación, nostalgia y la privatización del espacio público.
(The space of fear in the modern city. Strategies of evasion, segregation and privatization of public space)

Este proyecto hace una exploración crítica hacia las transformaciones que ha sufrido la ciudad en la posmodernidad que se manifiestan como síntomas espaciales, formales y arquitectónicos de lo que Zygmunt Bauman denomina “vida líquida”, modo de vida de un mundo contemporáneo “líquido” lleno de incertidumbres derivadas del fracaso del proyecto modernista. Entendiendo históricamente al miedo como el catalizador de las grandes trasformaciones urbanas y de los modos de vida urbanos, se investigará al miedo como construcción social y urbana para identificar las raíces y síntomas de la desintegración de la ciudad que buscan combatir los miedos líquidos (inseguridad, violencia, miedo al otro, etc.) y las estrategias conceptuales detrás de las formas urbanas y arquitectónicas que se generan.


PLAZA, Penélope (2011) De Bentham a Le Corbusier: vigilancia y disciplina en la vivienda social moderna latinoamericana, el Complejo Habitacional Pedregulho, Río de Janeiro, Brasil (1947-1958), Atenea, N° 504, segundo semestre 2011. Chile: Universidad de Concepción.

International Seminars:

Form follows fear: Thoughts on panoptism and modern architecture, Faculty of Humanities, Universidad de Concepcion, Chile. August 2012.

Dystopian Transparencies: The architecture of fear in Zamiatin and Ballard, Department of Social Sciences, Universidad de la Frontera, Chile. August 2012.

Photo: Ciudad Universitaria de Caracas, view of the campus from the University Library. Penelope Plaza.

MPhil in Latin American Studies, University of Cambridge, 2004-2005.

Thesis: Building a Nation under El Nuevo Ideal Nacional. Public Works, Ideology and Representation during the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship, 1952-1958.

During the 1950s, Venezuela became the country with the most ambitious projects of modern architecture and urban planning in Latin America. The purpose of this thesis is to explore the policies derived from the dictatorship’s ideological framework of “El Nuevo Ideal Nacional” against the backdrop of the ideas of Democratic Ceasarism developed by Laureano Vallenilla Lanz in early twentieth century. I examine in particular the goals and ambitions of the ideology to modernize the country through the “transformation of the physical environment” and the betterment of all Venezuelans. Pérez Jimenez set the mission to achieve the material development and beautification of Venezuela through the investment of the oil rent windfall in massive projects of infrastructure. He embarked in a program of building grandiose public works as a persuasive physical evidence of the country’s progress and a tool to legitimate his dictatorial regime. I analyse emblematic examples of public works built by the regime, such as the Hotel Humboldt, Sistema La Nacionalidad and the Military Club in relation to the cultural and socio-economic context circumstances. I argue that although the physical transformation of the country was achieved, the betterment of the Venezuelans in reality only benefited a privileged few.

Photo: Conjunto Residencial Prefeito Mendes de Moraes (Pedregulho), Marcel Gautherot, 1947.

Plaza, Penélope (2011) From Bentham to Le Corbusier, Vigilance and Discipline in Modern Latin American Social Housing. The Pedregulho Housing Complex, Río de Janeiro, Brasil (1947-1958), Atenea, Nº 504, II Semestre, Universidad de Concepción-Chile, pp. 111-130.

(In Spanish)

This article explores the relationship between the institutions of power that commissioned the first projects of modern social housing in Latin America, its architecture and inhabitants. The Pedregulho Housing Complex is an exemplary case study, built between 1947 and 1952 in Brazil. The new architecture of the modern social housing projects in Latin American was conceived as a vehicle for “social transformation”. For this aim, the relationship between power, architecture and tenants is established in “panoptic” terms, with clear references to forms of imprisonment proposed since the Enlightenment as studied by the philosopher Michel Foucault (such as Bentham’s Panopticon ) and that will resonate with Le Corbusier’s ideas for the new modern city.

Este ensayo explora la relación entre las instituciones de poder que encargaron los primeros proyectos de vivienda social moderna en Latinoamérica, su arquitectura y sus habitantes. Como caso de estudio se escoge el Complejo Habitacional Pedregulho construido entre 1947 y 1952, en Brasil. La arquitectura de las nuevas viviendas modernas en Latinoamérica se concibió como el vehículo para la “transformación social”. La relación entre la arquitectura, sus ocupantes y el poder se plantea como “panóptica”, ya que podemos hallar referencias a formas de “encarcelamiento” propuestas desde la Ilustración estudiadas por el filósofo francés Michel Foucault (como el Panopticon del filósofo inglés Jeremy Bentham), y que hacen eco en las ideas del urbanismo moderno propuestas por el arquitecto y urbanista Le Corbusier.

Photo: Mural Casa Nacional AMNLAE, Brigada Rodrigo Peñalba, 1983. Destroyed in 1987. Source:

Plaza, Penélope (2010) Armed Mother and Child: The Depiction of the New Woman in Revolutionary Nicaragua Murals. Apuntes, Vol. 23, N° 1. Bogotá: Instituto Carlos Arbeláez, Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, ENE-JUN 2010.

(In Spanish)

La auto transformación para la renovación de la sociedad es un concepto esencial planteado por todas las revoluciones del siglo 20 d.C., materializada en la figura del “Hombre Nuevo”, quien dará forma a la nueva sociedad revolucionaria del futuro. Este concepto formaba parte crucial de la ideología del Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional. Este artículo se enfoca en analizar cómo emerge la “Mujer Nueva” en las artes visuales revolucionarias de la Nicaragua Sandinista, específicamente en el arte público mural, contribuyendo a crear el nuevo paisaje revolucionario a lo largo de todo el país. Una imagen en particular, una fotografía tomada en Matagalpa en 1984 por el fotógrafo nicaragüense Orlando Valenzuela a una guerrillera Sandinista titulada “Miliciana de Waswalito” o “Madre armada y niño” llegó a ser conocida internacionalmente. Esta imagen se convirtió en ícono internacional de la ”Mujer Nueva” de la revolución y aparecerá como motivo recurrente y de manera casi exclusiva en los murales comisionados por AMNLAE (Asociación de Mujeres Nicaragüenses “Luisa Amanda Espinoza”) cuando en la mayoría de los murales oficiales la representación de Mujer Nueva parece responder a los roles arquetípicos de la maternidad y feminidad.

Photo: Sistema La Nacionalidad, Fundación Fotografía Urbana.

Plaza, Penélope (2008) Building a Nation under the New National Ideal. Public Works, Representation and Ideology during Perez Jimenez Dictatorship, 1952-1958. Semana Internacional de Investigación Facultad de Arquitectura y Urbanismo. Ponencias in Extenso (CD). Caracas: FAU-UCV, October 2008, pp. [HP-12] 1- [HP-12] 24.

(In Spanish)

Photo: One of the 23 adverts of PDVSA La Estancia "We transform oil…" campaign

Petrocultures 2016: The Offshore
Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada. 31 August-3 September 2016

Utopian Visions of Petrosocialism in Urban Space

My current research explores the relationship between the petrostate, the state-owned oil company PDVSA, and urban space in Venezuela, focusing primarily on the spatialization of the power of oil through the work of PDVSA La Estancia -the social and cultural arm of the state owned oil company- and the construction of imaginaries of petrosocialism in the city of Caracas. Hugo Chavez claimed he was a building a socialism different to the one that Marx had envisioned, his socialism was the socialism of the 21st century, a Bolivarian socialism, a socialism fed/supported by the oil rent, in sum, petrosocialism. This raises the question, what does a petrosocialist city look like? To answer this question, this paper looks in particular at the visual campaign launched by PDVSA La Estancia in 2013, titled “We transform oil into a renewable resource for you” through the semiotic lens of Roland Barthes’ myths and George Yudice’s Expediency of Culture. I argue that the adverts provide a fabricated imaginary of urban life under petrosocialism, a complex vision of a particular lived geography that attempts to integrate high culture and aesthetics in urban spaces that will be governed by the legal instruments of the Socialist/Communal State.

Photo: Multicolour Oil Pump in the gardens of PDVSA La Estancia. Penelope Plaza 2014.

Exit Velocity: The Cultural Capital Exchange, University of West London, 24 June 2016.

Sowing Oil, Harvesting Culture: the Law of Hydrocarbons as Implicit Cultural Policy.

In 2007 Hugo Chavez affirmed he was a building a socialism different to what Karl Marx had envisioned, a socialism of the 21st century leveraged by the oil rent, in other words, Petrosocialism. PDVSA, the state-owned oil company effectively became the “engine of revolutionary change” (Maass 2009, pp.202, 215). That same year, PDVSA La Estancia, the social and cultural arm of PDVSA, embarked on an ambitious program of public art restoration and urban regeneration under the Sowing Oil Plan, guided the Law of Hydrocarbons. My current research explores the construction of discursive territories for cultural representations of petrosocialism in the city of Caracas through the work of PDVSA La Estancia. This paper asks: what notion of culture is mobilized under petrosocialism? Drawing on Tony Bennet’s conceptualisation of culture as a field of government, Yudice’s notion of culture as a resource, and Jeremy Ahearne’s categorisation of implicit cultural policy, this paper will explore the institutional circumstances that allowed for the interpretation and implementation of the Law of Hydrocarbons as an implicit cultural policy, superseding the authority of existing institutions of cultural and urban governance.

Photo: Sabana Grande Boulevard, Caracas. Courtesy of PDVSA La Estancia

SLAS Annual Conference 2015, Aberdeen, 17-18 April

The Spatialisation of the Power of Oil: PDVSA as place entrepreneur in the regeneration of Sabana Grande Boulevard.

In 2007, as part of the celebration of “La semana de Caracas”, PDVSA La Estancia (the social and cultural arm of PDVSA, the Venezuelan state-owned oil and natural gas Company) launched in partnership with the Libertador Municipality a National Competition of Ideas to gather architecture and urban design proposals for the integral rehabilitation of the Sabana Grande Boulevard and surrounding areas, that at the time were in disrepair and neglect. PDVSA La Estancia took control of the large scale infrastructure investment to transform Sabana Grande Boulevard’s urban landscape space in which imaginaries of oil are embedded throughout the space by way of the oil company’s branding, visual campaigns, urban furniture and choice of public art. Drawing on Lefebvre, and following Saskia Sassen’s assertion that city space is the ideal site for the spatialisation of power projects, this paper will explore the construction and mobilisation of culture in public space through the works of urban regeneration promoted and executed by PDVSA La Estancia, in which oil is integrated to the repertoire of cultural symbols of the Bolivarian Petro-state, and as a symbol of the power of PDVSA over other institutional instances of the Venezuelan state.

Photo: Reurbanización El Silencio. Colección Hermann Sifontes – Fundación Fotografía Urbana

Congreso Internacional Ciudades Latinoamericanas: La utopía intelectual en una geografía inestable 2009. Facultad de Filosofía y Literatura, Universidad de Buenos Aires, 12 November.

Del rancho a la modernidad: panopticismo y “domesticación” en la vivienda social moderna en Brasil y Venezuela, el caso de Pedregulho y El Silencio, 1940-1950. (From Slum to Modernity: Panoptism in Modern Social Housing in Brazil and Venezuela).

Esta ponencia es parte de una investigación recién iniciada sobre las transformaciones que ha sufrido la ciudad en la posmodernidad, manifiestas como síntomas espaciales y arquitectónicos de lo que Zygmunt Bauman denomina “vida líquida”, ese modo de vida de este mundo contemporáneo “líquido” lleno de incertidumbres como consecuencia del fracaso del proyecto modernista. Este trabajo en específico se enfoca en los primeros grandes proyectos modernos de vivienda social en Latinoamérica, impulsados por trasformaciones urbanas modernizadoras e higienistas, explorando espacialmente la relación entre las instituciones de poder que encargaron los proyectos, la arquitectura y sus habitantes. Como casos estudio se escogieron Los Bloques de El Silencio (1941-1945) en Caracas y el Complejo Habitacional Pedregulho (1946- 1952) en Rio de Janeiro. La arquitectura se concibió como el vehículo para la “transformación social”, para la transición de la miseria a la pureza, de la enfermedad a la salud, de la ignorancia a la educación, del rancho a la modernidad. La relación entre la arquitectura, sus ocupantes y la autoridad se plantea en este trabajo como “panóptica”. Ambos proyectos no son panópticos en el sentido arquitectónico, sin embargo la manera como fueron gestionados por las autoridades califica como lo que Foucault denominó como “panopticismo”. A pesar poseer claras diferencias arquitectónicas y estilísticas, tienen en común un factor clave: ser símbolos de una promesa de progreso, de la expectativa de que la arquitectura sería un vehículo de transformación social a través de la “domesticación” de aquellos escogidos para ocupar las nuevas viviendas.

Photo: 23 de Enero, 1956. Fundación Fotografía Urbana

Semana Internacional de Investigación 2008, Facultad de Arquitectura y Urbanismo Universidad Central de Venezuela, 2 October.

Building a Nation Under the New National Ideal. Public Works, Representation and Ideology during Perez Jimenez Dictatorship 1952-1958.

(In Spanish)

Abstract: El ascenso al poder de Marcos Pérez Jiménez en 1952 coincidió con un clima económico favorable, cuyo motor fue la expansión de la industria petrolera. El incremento en los ingresos petroleros permitió al régimen financiar un programa ambicioso de industrialización y modernización. Los logros de dicha administración se enmarcaron dentro de la ideología del Nuevo Ideal Nacional. Concebido por Pérez Jiménez y empleado por él como propaganda, el Nuevo Ideal Nacional se presentó como un concepto ideológico venezolano muy singular, que se sustentaba en la tradición histórica, la abundancia de recursos naturales y la situación geográfica favorable del país. El propósito principal del ideal era “la transformación del medio físico y el mejoramiento de las condiciones morales, intelectuales y materiales de los venezolanos”. Esta ponencia tiene como objetivo explorar las políticas derivadas de la ideología denominada Nuevo Ideal Nacional. En particular, examinaré las ambiciones de esta ideología de modernizar el país por medio de “la transformación del entorno físico” y el mejoramiento de todos los venezolanos. Pérez Jiménez se propuso concretar el desarrollo material y embellecimiento de Venezuela, para lo cual se abocó a construir grandiosas obras públicas como evidencia tangible del progreso del país. Analizaré varios ejemplos emblemáticos de obras públicas construidas por el régimen y los colocaré en contexto con las circunstancias socioeconómicas de la época. Asimismo, esgrimiré el argumento de que la mejora de los venezolanos sólo benefició a unos pocos privilegiados, a pesar de que en efecto se había logrado la transformación física el país.
Durante la década de 1950, Venezuela se convirtió en el país latinoamericano con mayores logros arquitectónicos, tanto en calidad como en cantidad. Caracas fue la ciudad seleccionada para expresar el fino gusto oficial con obras de arquitectura y embellecimiento urbano. La arquitectura sirvió entonces como instrumento iconográfico para plasmar la ideología del Estado.